Maintaining User Experience Across your Brand

Gradually I think a lot of companies are coming around to the notion of user experience as being a vital part of creating a valuable, usable and desirable product. Looking at this data posted over at Adaptive Path yesterday and you can see that it certainly has become top of mind.

The one place though I often see User Experience fall down though is when it comes to maintaining consistency across an organizations various products. Microsoft is a bad for this at times – looking at their new office suite most of the products got the new “Ribbon” menu system but Visio got left out and Outlook seems to only insert it into certain environments. The challenge is a user is forced to continually adjust their frame of reference and methods of interaction with their computer as they move through their day to day work.

One of the worst culprits for this though is automotive companies. They spend millions, if not billions of dollars establishing and common look, feel or design sensibility across their product line. Take Jeep for example:

Looking at the front of any Jeep product, you know it’s a jeep. Mazda’s are the same way – I’ve got two of them, a Mazda3 and a Mazda6. Even the interiors are very similar to each other, you know you’re sitting in a Mazda.

Similar is the Problem
But there’s the crux of the issue – “similar” is the problem. Esthetically similar is just fine – like the Jeeps above – they’re like a family, no one is identical but when viewed they all bear similar features etc.. A Jeep looks like a Jeep, A Mazda looks like a Mazda and so on. But at an interaction level “similar” starts to go down some very bad paths.

We got the Mazda6 first and later bought the Mazda3 so the 6 is what we’ve “imprinted” on, our interactions with both cars are based on how we interacted with the six for the 12 months we had it before the 3.

The photo above is pretty much what my 6’s dash looks like. The 3’s is actually pretty similar, display, vents, radio, 3 dial climate control. Perfect right?

Not so, inexplicable things such as the 3 Climate Control dials – on the 6 the dials go Heat/Cool | Fan Speed | Direction. IN the 3? Direction | Fan Speed | Heat/Cool. So every time we switch form car to car (it’s quite often I’ll drive home in my commuter 3 and hop right into the 6 to take the family out) we’re constantly changing the wrong dials – at best a pain in the butt, at worst another unnecessary look away form the road/distraction.

The radio is another peeve, the two dials are reversed and the 3 introduces a third dial which controls the volume – so I’m always tuning to another station when I’m really trying to reach for the volume.

Lastly the cars also have some very strange differences in behavior.

What brought this all together was my experience this morning with my Mazda3. Our Mazda6 has the great “feature” that it automatically turns off the car’s headlights about 30 seconds to a minute after you lock the car doors, even if the “lights” dial is in the on position. I’ve always believed that all lights on, all the time is the safest way to drive so we just leave the lights on and they turn off on their own.

My 3 on the other hand has an automatic headlights option, which is nice – but for some reason
they decided that because there was the automatic lights feature they probably didn’t need ANY sort of timer on the headlights if they were left in the on (but not auto) position (unlike just about every car on the market these days).

Yesterday afternoon I was checking that a light was still working – it was bright out so the automatic option wasn’t turning them on – I flicked the switch to lights “on” and checked, then drove home and put the car in the garage for the night.

Come out this morning, remote locks don’t work – open the door and get in, no interior lights, nothing. Not even a whimper as I turn the key.

My experience with the 6 turning off the lights quickly had basically trained my head to ignore the “Your light’s are on” tone that both cars emit. So when I hopped out of the 3 I didn’t even acknowledge it. My car sat there all night slowly draining the battery.

At the end of the day I’m all about personal responsibility – but corporations also need to consider how consistent the user experience is across their brand. Had both my Mazda’s had reasonably consistent ways of functioning, beyond simply “looking” similar I wouldn’t have been cursing up a blue streak in their honour while waiting for roadside assistance to arrive (turns out the transmission lock is electric – so I couldn’t even get it in neutral to roll it out of the garage and boost it with my other car).

We’ve worked pretty hard internally to get all of our products working on one common interface, I won’t suggest that it’s perfect but we’re constantly working on improving it (including a new interface revision in the works right now).

Advice for any company: Keep it simple, Keep it useful, Keep it consistent.

(As an aside: I will give Mazda’s Roadside Assistance credit where it’s due. They had someone at my house within 15 minutes at rush hour. The nice operator even showed my how to manually unlock my transmission in the future should the need arise.)

Photos: Jeeps – ~anuradha | Mazda Dash – prettywar-stl